The Ancient World of Indian Rock Art… On the Road

My wife Peggy and I have travelled throughout the western United States visiting and photographing Native American rock-art. We found this petroglyph of a cougar in the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site of southern new Mexico.

I grew up in the town of Diamond Springs, California located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Once upon a time Diamond had been known as Mo-lok’epakan, or, Morning Star’s Spring. It was a very holy place to the Maidu Indians. They came from miles around bearing their dead on litters for cremation.

Apparently the Maidu had been living in the area for a thousand years. It is a sad commentary on both our education system and how we treated the Indians that I grew up never hearing the name Morning Star’s Spring much less Mo-lok’epakan.

Our only connection with the Maidu’s lost heritage was finding an occasional arrowhead or Indian bead.

The thrill of finding arrowheads, however, led to a lifelong fascination with the culture of Native Americans. Over the past ten years that fascination has led me to an interest in Indian rock-art or petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are pecked or scraped from dark, rock varnish exposing a lighter color underneath. Pictographs are painted on rocks.

Indian rock-art is found at thousands of locations throughout the Western United States often near water or unique landmarks. Searching for rock-art is often like a treasure hunt. Here you can spot a group of petroglyphs on the left about a third of the way up the rock.

Peggy and I have explored and photographed major rock-art sites throughout the western US. Today I will introduce Sego Canyon located in eastern Utah off of I-70 near the small town of Thompson. Later I will blog about other sites such as the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site of New Mexico.

What captured me about Sego Canyon is the unique, almost ethereal rock-art of the archaic peoples, and the fact that the rock-art represents three distinctive Native American cultures ranging over 8000 years.

The pictographs featured below were made by archaic hunter-gatherer nomads who wandered across western North America between 6000 and 100 BC. Rock art is classified according to various styles and this particular style is known as Barrier Canyon. Its attributes include life-size, man-like creatures with hollow eyes, missing arms, antennae, and lots of snakes. The theory is that the figures may have represented shamanistic journeys to the underworld. I am voting for encounters with aliens… just kidding.

This rock-art, which is found in Sego Canyon, Utah, was created sometime between 6000 and 100 AD. It is classified as the Barrier Canon style. Note the hollow eye sockets, antennae, horns and snakes.

This is a close up showing images from the above photo. There is some thought that these figures reflect shamanistic visits to the underworld but one can understand why UFO fans might think they represent encounters with aliens.

These figures from the Barrier Canyon style seem wraith-like… red ghosts arising from the rock.

The Fremont Culture existed between 600 and 1200 AD and represented a more settled lifestyle. The rock-art of the Fremont Indians featured rectangular bodies with small heads. Both deer and mountain sheep are also found in the rock art below. Note the Indian shooting the mountain sheep with a large bow and arrow.

This rock-art found in Sego Canyon is done in the so-called Fremont style where rectangular figures with elaborate jewelry were common.

Mountain sheep are the most common animals found in Native America rock-art.

The final culture represented in Sego Canyon is that of the Ute Indians who lived in the area from 1300 AD up to 1880 when they were forced off the land to live on reservations. One indicator of more ‘modern’ rock-art is the presence of horses that didn’t exist in North America until the Spanish introduced them in the 1500s. Note the red leggings on the central figure. I also like the little red guy riding the horse. Yahoo! The round figure on the right is thought to represent a shield.

Identifying the age of petroglyphs is a difficult process. The appearance of horses shows that the petroglyphs were created after the 16th Century when the Spanish introduced horses to North America.

In my next post I will travel to Dinosaur National Monument, which also has some very unique Indian rock-art such as this one featuring what I assume is a woman with big hands and some very fat dogs.

9 thoughts on “The Ancient World of Indian Rock Art… On the Road

    • And I shall share more. I am totally captured by rock-art as well as the cultures they represent. The so-called ‘primitive’ art has true power. I feel the same way about the totem poles of the First Nation tribes of Canada.

  1. Just fascinating… Thanks so much for sharing. Like you said — truly a sad testament that little (NO?) learning is given to this civilization and people that lived here for a millennium. Truly outstanding, and evidence that we continue to deny, negate their existence. I would LOVE to see this art in person — your captions are great, heh.

    • Thanks FeyGirl… I feel one of the greatest lessons the Native American and First Nation cultures have to teach us is a greater sensitivity to the natural world. Children thrive on these lessons if they are given a chance to learn them.

  2. I was always amazed to find such gems when hiking along or turning a corner and glancing behind a rock……incredible….never tire of its beauty and stories.

    • I have another site scheduled for a blog coming up, Cindy. Of all the sites that Peggy and I have been to, Three Rivers, New Mexico is the most impressive. I did several blogs on it. The next one will be in Arizona.

  3. If you’re ever around palisade Colorado you should check out the palisade rim trail, a fun beautiful hike with some petroglyphs half way up, I believe Ute art, not sure of the age.

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